28 March 2018 - 21:10

Maximize your CPU's potential with our overclocking guide

Push your processor to the limit.
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Photo via Alexandru-Bogdan Ghita

Overclocking your CPU is a simple, effective way to squeeze more performance out of your processor. It can be a little risky, but PC builders and enthusiasts wear excellent overclocks like a badge of pride.

Unfortunately, you can’t overclock every processor, only certain models. Intel chips with a K at the end (Intel Core i7-8700K for example) have an unlocked multiplier. If your chip doesn’t have a K, you may still be able to overclock it, but only in rare cases. AMD FX and Ryzen chips are already unlocked, so most recent red team users can bump their speed a bit.

Preparing

Before you start tinkering around under the hood, you should understand that overclocking your CPU is a bit more serious than installing some extra RAM or a new hard drive. It can damage your system’s components, and may void your warranty. Run a search for your specific CPU and get an idea for the clock speeds and voltages others are achieving. There are three elements that result in a high overclock: heat, power, and luck.

Overclocked CPUs create more heat than their stock speed counterparts, so we need extra cooling to keep our operating temperatures low. The better your cooling, the closer you can get to those scores you see online. Your included stock cooler won’t provide much cooling, but all-in-one liquid coolers are a cheap, simple way to stave off the heat.

The next factor is power management, and that’s not just the main source coming off your PSU. Advanced overclocking involves adjusting the voltage from the motherboard to the CPU itself, which is where things start to get risky. Raising the voltage too high can cause irreparable damage to the CPU and motherboard, and safe thresholds can vary across generations and motherboard manufacturers. If this is your first time overclocking, we recommend leaving these sliders alone, unless you’ve done your homework for your chip and motherboard.

Finally, you just need to be lucky. Processors are sold with speeds set below their actual potential, but that maximum speed can vary greatly, even among seemingly identical CPUs. Overclocking means playing what PC enthusiasts call the silicon lottery, and your chip may reach excellent speeds, or it might not be stable very far above stock speeds. It’s just a roll of the dice.

BIOS overclocking

Most overclockers speed up their CPU through the BIOS. Your motherboard will have specific instructions for accessing the BIOS and configuring the exact settings, but there are some common terms to look for. Restart your system, and when the prompt appears, rapidly press the indicated button for the BIOS or UEFI, typically Delete or F2.

A lot of modern motherboard makers will have automatic tuning features built right in. Depending on the manufacturer, this may involve testing the CPU and using that info, or just reading speeds and voltages from a preset list. If your system runs the stress tests, you can usually trust it to do a good job. If it’s just reading from a list, stick to one of the lower settings, or set them yourself.

If you want to try it yourself, it’s best to take it slow, and test often. Your processor has a base speed, and a multiplier, which results in a clock speed. Increase the multiplier from its current state, up one time -- 28X for 2.8GHz to 29X for 2.9GHz, for example. Any long, consistently CPU-intensive program will do the trick—a long Handbrake conversion, or the 7-Zip built-in benchmark. As long as the system doesn’t shut down or run into any issues, you can bump the clock speed a little higher and test again. Once you reach a point where it can’t complete its task, dial it back a little bit, and you’ve found your stable overclock.

Software overclocking

If you don’t want to go digging around in the BIOS, you can try software overclocking. These applications make things even simpler, and are often intended for users who are new to overclocking. But they don’t have the best track record, and the overclocking community tends to prefer BIOS overclocking for its stability and control.

Intel users can check out the Intel Extreme Tuning Utility, which will help you through the process of stress testing your CPU and setting proper speeds and voltages. Again, this will only work with unlocked K or X series chips.

AMD Ryzen owners also have the option of adjusting their clock speeds through the Ryzen Master software. It boasts multiple profiles, automatic tuning, and presets for different operation modes. Older AMD FX series chips can use AMD OverDrive to achieve the same task.

Watch those temperatures

Make sure to use your cooler manufacturer’s software, or a third-party option, to continually monitor CPU and motherboard temperatures. If anything looks too high or abnormal, particularly under load, you might want to roll back your settings a bit. Overclocking issues can manifest in weird ways, so any odd shutdowns, program crashes, or errors may be the result of these changes.

If everything runs smoothly, then you’re all set. Once you feel comfortable with the speeds you’ve achieved, you can look into a new cooler to raise them further, or see what others suggest for possible voltages. Even so, that might just be the fastest your chip can run.

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